Originally written for the Freesphere Entertainment blog.
The notion that games somehow constitute a qualitatively inferior narrative medium when compared to books or film is an idiocy repeated time and again in literary criticism, the blame for which goes, as usual, to the specialists.
Ian Bogost is one such specialist, who chose to take a turn at repeating the aforementioned idiocy in an article entitled “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” published in The Atlantic. Bogost’s masturbatory screed weaves haphazardly around Doom and Bioshock, finally wandering through Gone Home to arrive at it’s real target, the recently released What Remains of Edith Finch. His thesis, meandering and convoluted as it is, seems to be that any story these games might have to offer would be inherently better conveyed in the form of a film or novel.
The justifications offered for this position are paper-thin and superficial, bolstered more by smug self-importance than any genuine analysis of either games or narrative, though Bogost is supposedly a lauded academic in both fields. Given that the entire piece relies upon the reader simply accepting Bogost’s vapid valuation of three distinct narrative media, the piece serves more to beg one big, pretentious, out-of-touch question rather than offer any insight into gaming. Ultimately, Bogost advocates a severely limited, stagnant fate for games as a mode of entertainment reminiscent of my paternal grandparents’ stunted outlook on television in its early years. In the hopes of wresting the discourse from the clutches of this dull myopia, let’s dive into Bogost’s claims directly.
At the outset, Bogost states in no uncertain terms that, “Film, television, and literature all tell stories better [than games].” That no explicit evidence is offered for this claim is unsurprising, given the dubious demonstrability of such a subjective claim. The closest we are offered is Bogost’s foundational strawman: taking the fantasy of Star Trek’s holodeck as an example, he argues that the end goal of narrative in games are stories which replicate one-to-one the responsiveness of real life. “It would be like living in a novel,” he writes, “where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.” We can surmise, then, that what compares film and print narratives favorably to games, for Bogost, is a lack of pretense toward imitating real-world causality as a means of simulating agency. In the environmental storytelling of games, by contrast, Bogost sees only an insufficient illusion of causality. “Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive,” he demands, “when all the player does is assemble something from parts?”
By taking these premises for granted, Bogost creates for himself a lovely set of goalposts on rollerskates. If we assume that the value of game narratives hinge on the ability of the game design to directly represent this sort of causality, than any example which pulls back the curtain and reveals the illusion behind the experience serves to bolster Bogost’s claims. Imagine such a criteria being leveled at film! Are we to say that a war film is cheapened because the scores of extras aren’t actually killed in a hail of bullets? Is the drama of a love scene spoiled by the fact that the sex is simulated and just beyond the edge of the frame lies a full film crew and catering tables? Of course not!
The crucial error that Bogost makes here is that he takes the illusion of the player experience as the truth of narrative design. He assumes that the goal is an experience which offers infinite permutations depending on the behavior of a free subject. This, however, is not a description of narrative at all, but rather an account of the logical conclusion of a strictly mechanics-based model of game design that Bogost advocates at the end of his article. “[G]ames are the aesthetic form of everyday objects,” he writes, arguing that the real purpose of games as a medium is to simply serve as a psychotic sandbox whereby certain rules and mechanics can determine behavior in response to input. The idea that this serves as a critique of narrative is absurd.
To correct this, we must first understand that the end goal of narrative design in games is not the Borgesian nightmare that Bogost proposes, whereby the story of a game simply serves as a direct representation of how events proceed via causality in reality. In fact, narrative serves games best in the role of a limiting contextualization which imbues the rote mechanical actions with meaning. It is not crucial that games behave precisely as the real world does; Bogost is right that this is impossible. Indeed, he might be surprised to learn all the ways in which what he believes he is experiencing when he watches a film is actually the product of carefully crafted illusion, or just how much he actually suspends disbelief when reading that novel that strikes him offhand as being so viscerally real. The trick is not to create a virtual world that perpetually behaves precisely like the real world, but rather to craft an experience in which a sense of agency is conveyed to the player within the bounds of the design. Thomas Grip puts it perfectly in a post on the Frictional blog:
This is the power of narrative context. By wrapping gameplay actions in storytelling the experience that emerges exceeds the sum of its parts. Taken solely on their own merit, the gameplay mechanics don't feel very engaging. But when used in the right environment they work far better at providing the intended experience...
That this passes over Bogost’s head is unsurprising, given the feeble account of gaming history he offers. Jumping from a pair of first-person shooters to a walking simulator, he completely circumnavigates point-and-click adventure games, a genre that remains influential to this day. He uses soccer and Monopoly to exemplify the rote, mechanical nature of games that he advocates as the true essence of the media, but he never once mentions the elaborate pen-and-paper RPGs that gave rise to some of the greatest game stories of all time. To be sure, why would he bring these up when it’s so much easier to cherry-pick gaming’s diverse history and dismiss the entire field of narrative design with a snarky quip about how uncommon good writing is in video games?
In the last portion of his article, Bogost attempts to dismantle any claim that a game like Edith Finch demonstrates the narrative power of games. He lists off a number of ways in which the gameplay in Edith Finch serves in symbiosis with its narrative ends, before dismissing them all on a spurious basis.
These are remarkable accomplishments. But they are not feats of storytelling, at all [sic]. Rather, they are novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine. The ability to render light and shadow, to model structure and turn it into obstacle, to trick the eye into believing a flat surface is a bookshelf or a cavern, and to allow the player to maneuver a camera through that environment, pretending that it its a character. Edith Finch is a story about a family, sure, but first it’s a device made of the conventions of 3-D gaming…
It is inexplicable to me why narrative conveyed through a given medium is somehow devalued because of the very traits of that medium. You could just as easily say that the Coppola’s The Godfather is not a feat of storytelling, but a feat of moving cameras around, filming actors with lights shining on them, and editing them all together in the cutting room. You could argue that Toni Morrison’s Beloved is less a feat of storytelling and more a feat of syntactical and grammatical arrangement of words. The idea that somehow the use of the medium’s formal qualities to tell a story would cheapen the story itself, or even the very notion of storytelling within the medium, is beyond inane. Here, Bogost is simply a lost soul grasping at straws, left behind by the progression of the very disciplines in which he is supposed to be so credentialed.
Nowhere is this clearer than when Bogost describes his thought process while playing Edith Finch. “Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read.” This notion is the peak of Bogost’s hubris, not only that his own laziness should set the standard for how a story should be told, but that the stories of books and film are stories meant for consumption by the lazy. It certainly leads one to wonder how little work was required on the part of Bogost to achieve all of his academic titles. While others were poring over texts, piecing together analyses, carefully crafting tales, perhaps he was kicking back in front of the TV while the scholarly commendations stacked themselves.
By the end, Bogost tries to put a positive spin on all of this, presumably to allay the concern that a professor of interactive computing and game designer might not actually care that much for games. It’s not that games shouldn’t ever tell stories, he says, it’s just that storytelling itself isn’t all that great a goal. Indeed, I’ve not played any of Bogost’s games. They may be quite good. It’s not uncommon that a creator’s work is more articulate than the creator themselves. I’m sure The Howard Dean for Iowa Game is utterly enthralling, and that Cow Clicker’s satire of social gaming is ingeniously scathing. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Bogost has an incredibly limited view of how games can achieve greatness. After dismissing narrative, Bogost opts for an equivocal prescription: games must “[take] the tidy, ordinary world apart and [put] it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.”
The irony here is that this description could just as easily describe the art of storytelling, the chief goal of which is to mold reality into a fascinating experience. Games provide a visceral, immersive take on that, both in spite of and even because of their artificial nature. It would be truly a shame if gaming were to abdicate its position on the cutting edge of narrative media.